Aspiring engineers design mission to Mars

By Sara Bruestle | Jul 31, 2013
Courtesy of: Melissa Edwards Jeevan Gaberria participates in a Challenge Learning Center Moon Mission simulation during the Washington Aerospace Scholars summer residency program.

As NASA astronauts train for a mission to Mars, local students recently tried their hand at designing it.

Four Mukilteo School District students were among 160 juniors from across the state to qualify for the Washington Aerospace Scholars summer residency program.

Washington Aerospace Scholars is a competitive STEM educational program for high school juniors from across the state. The program has two phases: a NASA-designed online curriculum and a six-day summer residency.

Spencer Anderson, Samuel Hopkins and Nahom Seyoum of Mariner High School and Jeevan Gaberria of Kamiak High School were accepted to one of the four WAS summer residency sessions held in June and July at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

During their residency, they collaborated with the other students on the design of a human mission to Mars.

They were assigned to one of four teams made up of 10 students. They worked at the museum from 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. most days.

“I didn’t realize how much work goes into [planning a mission],” Gaberria said. “I have more appreciation for what NASA did.”

The scholars also toured engineering facilities, attended seminars led by experts in the field, and competed in hands-on engineering challenges, such as building model rockets and Mars rovers.

“Phase 2 was really fun,” Seyoum said. “You learn a lot in Phase 1, but then you’re doing everything, and you get to experience everything you learned about in Phase 2.”

Jeevan’s team was in charge of mission integration, or bringing all elements of the mission together. They decided on a flat landing site and selected an international crew of qualified men and women.

“We were the supervisors for everything,” he said. “We had to make sure that all the stuff was working together, all we had to achieve.”

Nahom’s team charge of selecting the science and research scope of the mission. His team decided to mine for minerals and designed a futuristic space suit.

“It’s a lot slimmer than the space suit they use right now,” he said. “It looks like scuba-diving gear, but has a huge helmet.”

At the end of the residency week, the students presented their Mars mission during a museum luncheon.

“It was pretty difficult sometimes, but in the end it was worth it, [to get to do] the summer residency,” Gaberria said. “You had to balance your regular schoolwork with WAS work.”

“I was happy that I got through all the hard work. It was a great experience.”

Three other Mukilteo School District students were also accepted into the first phase of the program. They were: Japhia Aragon-Millard, Daisy Dominguez and John Vu Nguyen, all from Mariner.

The eight students spent five months competing academically to be among the students chosen for a summer residency session. A total of 283 students applied in November.

The WAS program is designed to excite and prepare students to pursue career pathways in STEM fields using university-level curriculum developed in partnership with NASA and the University of Washington. Scholars receive five UW credits.

“Our main goal is to get them excited and motivated to go into a career in science, technology, engineering and math,” said Melissa Edwards, program director. “The goal is by exposing them to what engineers do, ultimately they would decide to do that.”

Many of the scholars do go on to become engineers: Since its start in 2007, 70 percent of the 1,000 students that have completed the summer program are working in a STEM field.

In fact, Nahom and Jeevan both applied for the free program because they have an interest in careers in aerospace and engineering. Nahom said Phase 1 helped him to decide to become an aerospace engineer.

“Engineering is a problem-solving career,” he said. “You get to be ingenuitive, you get to build stuff. I think I’m naturally just made for engineering.”

In Phase 1, students study the history and future of space exploration – doing research, writing essays, designing graphics and solving math and physics problems.

During the summer residency, or Phase 2, students work in teams to plan a human mission to Mars with support from professional engineers and scientists, university students and professors.

“This is a really good program,” Seyoum said. “I don’t know why more people aren’t taking advantage of it. It was one of the most interesting things I did this summer.”

Applications for the 2013-14 program are due Nov. 8. To get an application or get additional information, go to

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